“The Passion’s Gone” is an on-going feature examining the creative trajectory of different bands in order to pinpoint the exact moment when their creative relevance dries out.
As far as bands go, few if any can compete with the success of U2. They have sold hundreds of millions of albums and have been critic darlings for decades. They are the epitome of the word “institution”, along with the Stones, the Beatles (what’s left of them), Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna. So much has been said about them, in books, magazines, talk shows, and newspaper articles that you’d literally have to live under a rock to have not heard about them. And that rock would have to be smashed with other rocks. And those rocks would then have to be decimated…
Anyway, the point is, I won’t bore you with details of their ascent. All you need to know I’ve listed as bullet points below (you’re welcome):
- Bono is a megalomaniac. Unfortunately, he’s also an amazing lyricist and, in his prime, one of the absolute greatest rock singers of all time. He also at one point did this: This was in the 90s during U2’s “ironic” phase, when Bono decided the best thing to do was to dress up like the devil, call the president, mock foreign leaders (being “ironical” of course) and sing us sweet lullabies like “Love is Blindness”. It was a grand old time.
- The Edge understands how to use delay pedals for a guitar. Just listen to “Pride (In the Name of Love)”, “The Unforgettable Fire”, “Even Better Than the Real Thing”, “With or Without You”, or really any song they’ve ever done. It’s a majestic thing. He may be faulted for his technical simplicity, but the man creates landscapes. He revolutionized sound. He’s OK.
- There are two other guys. Their names are Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. They do not have nicknames. They are good, but not great. Their career highlights include the bass line for “Bullet the Blue Sky” and the drums for “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. Those are great.
- If you don’t have a U2 album (in which case I don’t know how you ended up at this blog), there are a few you have to buy. Here they are, in order from the-fact-that-you-don’t-have-this-album-seriously-makes-me-question-your-street-cred to pretty great: The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, Pop, Zooropa, The Unforgettable Fire, War.
- These guys are probably very good people and Bono really probably does want to save the planet. However, they cannot convince me that they care about the environment. The energy cost of the Zoo TV tour alone probably could run Ireland for a few days or so. However, it was awesome. And really, the environment never rocked out like U2. U2 wins.
So, now that you should have a pretty good idea on the outrageous talent that is U2, let’s get to the interesting part: where it all unravels a bit.
After U2 had completed their Zoo TV tour in 1994, they were undeniably the outright biggest and best band in the world. Not only had they leapfrogged the bar for stadium tours with the gigantic artistic statement that was the Zoo TV tour, but they had delivered one flat out classic album in Achtung Baby and one great album in Zooropa. This was a band that was continuously delivering knock outs while somehow also changing their own sound AND selling millions of records. In short, they could do no wrong.
Then they did wrong…or so it seemed.
They released Pop in 1997, an album that was hyped as U2’s foray into dance/techno music. Without going into the details, their fans did not eat this music up as they did every other album they had made in the last decade or so. Then they booked a massive stadium tour, which sold only mildly well (for U2’s ridiculous standards). All of this led the album and accompanying tour to be labeled a colossal failure*. Apparently U2 had pushed the envelope so far that they had forgotten what made them special in the first place. It was like when Michael Jordan decided to play baseball. Why stray from such a good thing? And so U2 did exactly what Jordan did, they went back.
And just like Jordan, going back led to success, at least commercially.
That retread came in the form of All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2000. You may have heard of it. It had “Beautiful Day”. It basically took over the pop charts for the better part of a year and U2 had “gone back to basics” and The Edge had “rediscovered his guitar” and apparently “it was on fire”. I put these in quotes because I know some critic somewhere said some, if not all, of these things during the year 2000. The album was quite good, particularly it’s first half. However, it was harmless. None of the caustic, biting sounds that drove Pop were on this record. As critically and commercially successful as the new album was, it lacked any forward movement. In fact, it prided itself on looking to the past. This was the beginning of the end for U2’s creative relevance.
Theories may abound over why U2 chose, for the first time in its career, to look back instead of forward. I have my own, take it or leave it. U2, as previously explained, was the rarest of rare bands. They were adored by critics and the masses alike. For nearly 17 years, they were able to take musical risks while somehow growing their fan base. As this continued, they ventured further and further away from their comfort zone. This led to groundbreaking works like Achtung Baby. Yet once commercial “failure” arrived, it came hard, and they were unable to cope. They had never tasted any real failure. And they panicked. They decided to find their fans again. And with that, they joined the Nickelbacks of the world in whatever $5 bin you find them.
Someone wise once said something about how you only know you’re pushing boundaries if you’re pissing someone off.
U2 now, at its tamest:
U2 what it once was:
*=Side bar: Pop was a great album. Pop was not techno music. Pop was very heavy musically, and contained some of Bono’s best vocals and lyrics. The song “Wake Up Dead Man” will make you a believer. My theory is U2 was so big at the time, it was destined to fail. They had spoiled their fans and the weight of expectations were their undoing. Dylan had the foresight to get in a motorcycle crash. U2 had the gall to keep on. Dylan 1, U2 0.